****1/2 (out of five)
Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantasia on celebrity, persona, art, criticism, family and, more than anything, theatre, is so kinetic and percussive that I left the cinema giddy with excitement. It’s like a roller-coaster for cinephiles: working mainly in the confined spaces of a Broadway theatre, González, in an echo of Hitchcock’s Rope, makes the film appear to be, with the exception of book-ending scenes, one, enormously long continuous shot. Rope was set in an apartment but Birdman’s theatre setting has many rooms, long corridors, and, of course, the stage, so it has tremendous dynamism; Hitchcock was confined to elegant dolly moves but González and his cinematographer, (the great) Emmanuel Lubezki, have all of Steadicam’s mobility combined with CGI faux edits. Combined with a purely drummed score and huge swathes of rapid-fire, crackling dialogue, the film is a ride.
Its big theme is career crisis and personal validation, but its big thrill is how wonderfully it gets across the realities of backstage life. The theatre where superhero movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is producing, directing and starring in a self-adapted play of a famous Raymond Carver short story, the St. James, is grimy, worn in, claustrophobic and dilapidated, and the stuff of theatre actor’s dreams. It is the biggest character in the movie and thoroughly loveable. Its beating heart is reflected in the many backstage workers always on the edges of the frame or scooting through it; some we understand what they’re doing, some we don’t, but they’re as lived in as the theatre, Broadway unionised techs and mechs with all the lingo. “Break a leg, Mr. Thomson” says one as Riggan rushes to an onstage call. In theatre, you don’t not address the star, but you do call them by their last name.
Being so hectic, the film may wear out some, and some may find its characters simply too self-involved to appeal, but anyone with a taste for the theatre, the craft of acting, or Broadway itself will be in their element. The film restricts itself so much to the interior of the St. James and the immediate buildings around it that when it even moves a couple of blocks away it feels too spacious: we become accustomed to – indeed briefly addicted to – the close quarters of the theatre and its environs, and when we’re away from them feel adrift, because we miss that heartbeat.
An ensemble cast, lead by Keaton but by no means dominated by him, are all terrific. Ed Norton has the showiest role as a toast-of-Broadway actor who is both insufferable and legitimately brilliant; Naomi Watts once again nails a really tough challenge: playing an actress who has a role just slightly beyond her abilities, she shows us that actress’s limitations – in other words, she does some really good “bad acting”. Andrea Riseborough shows huge vulnerability (and the ability to play American) and Lindsay Duncan gets a meaty slice of an appearance as the New York Times Theatre critic. But the performance that leaps off the screen the most is that of Emma Stone; playing Keaton’s daughter, she is by turns irritating, exasperating, mysteriously compelling and ultimately moving. Stone has an extraordinary look but she has never been shot so well as she is here; Lubezki has brought out her otherworldliness (those eyes!) more than any other cinematographer, and in many scenes she is a startling presence.
Rope, in keeping with its conceit of appearing to be one take, took place in real time, whereas Birdman, while borrowing the conceit, actually takes place over four or five days and nights. Some may call its methods of achieving such temporal elasticity magic realism or stylisation; I think that the film simply plays by its own rules. It is hugely ambitious, rambunctious, loud and thrilling; it takes risks at every step, and while not all pay off, most do in spades. It’s not always funny but when it is, it’s hilarious. It is also highly original – and that always deserves credit. Maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely a wonder.